Which way home? Diasporas and development

Ehsan Masood
15 November 2006

Atta-ur-Rahman is Pakistan's energetic minister for higher education, and one of the country's most decorated scientists. He is also a man in a tremendous hurry.

Rahman wants his country to join the ranks of the advanced developing nations, only he wanted this to have happened yesterday. With the blessing (and the largesse) of his boss General Pervez Musharraf, he is on a mission to transform Pakistan's knowledge infrastructure. This includes building new universities and getting more young people into higher education, providing more funds for research grants, providing free broadband access to public educational institutions and setting up a nationwide digital library. At the same time, plane-loads of students have been dispatched across the country (and the world) to train for PhDs, or obtain broader research experience.

Rahman is popular and respected, except for one of his reforms, which has not gone down too well with the troops on the ground. In common with China and India, Pakistan is keen to welcome back diaspora professionals: the scientists, engineers, managers and doctors who left for a better life in Europe or the United States. He wants them to return (even if for short periods) and help train Pakistan's next generation of researchers. The thinking is that they will inject fresh perspectives into a once-closed environment, and that returnees will, by dint of their own example, introduce systems for management, quality and standards that they learnt in scientifically more advanced countries.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network

Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The light of education: blind children's best buys'" (May 2006)

"Israel and the bomb: don't ask, don't tell" (June 2006)

"Muslim Britain: the end of identity politics?" (July 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school"
(August 2006)

"Big media, small world" (August 2006)

"The global politics of cricket"
(September 2006)

"Pope Benedict XVI:science is the real target"
(September 2006)

"The cost of freedom in the digital age"
(October 2006)

"Physics in revolution"
(October 2006)

"British Muslims: ends and beginnings"
(31 October 2006)

But professionals from developed countries don't come cheap, something that Rahman recognises all too well. So, under a project called the foreign faculty hiring program, the government has agreed to pay the newcomers from abroad much more than they would a Pakistan-based researcher, even if both have the same qualifications and experience.

Understandably, this causes a degree of resentment. At some institutions, Rahman's diaspora returnees are regarded with suspicion. One concern is that in a culture where older people demand and obtain respect from the young, it doesn't look good to see "young Turks" walk away with higher pay and perks. A second is that the output in some cases does not justify what is being spent on them. "Some of them use it as an excuse to visit relatives and have an extended nice holiday", is how one senior professor related his experience of scientist who had returned to Pakistan from abroad.

Same communities, different perspectives

This is a small example of one of the dilemmas that policymakers in developing countries face. They know that among diaspora communities, there is a deep well of emotion towards the homeland: a large degree of goodwill and enthusiasm, often touched with guilt for having gone abroad in the first place. There is also much money in the form both of remittances and philanthropy. Those who have taken early retirement, and who can share the fruits of their generous developed-world pensions, also have the precious resource of time to contribute.

The opportunity is there, but so are the questions. How best to deploy these and other resources without causing resentment among people at home and undermining professional cohesion? How best to turn "brain drain" into what policy researchers call "brain circulation"?

There are no easy answers, as Omar Samad, Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada told a conference in Toronto on 19-20 October 2006 on diasporas, peace and security organised by the United Nations-affiliated University for Peace. Samad, himself a returnee, recounted how it took him some time to adjust to the fact that the country he had gone back to was not the country he had left behind. Afghanistan's foreign ministry needed rebuilding from scratch. An additional factor, he said, were the tensions between those who had fled the country during the 1980s and 1990s, and those who chose to (or who had no choice but to) stay behind. The former are regarded as being less patriotic by some of the latter.

The difficulties of addressing these questions exist in part because those who research and study diasporas themselves come to different conclusions on the relationship of diasporas to politics and development. Among the more than seventy experts from around the world who gathered at the Toronto meeting, for example, two distinct currents of thinking were evident, each offering guidance to those involved in policymaking. The groups representing these two lines of thought were often studying or working with the same communities, but their different perspectives led them to different conclusions.

The first group are those who observe diaspora communities from the standpoint of the new countries of settlement. They include community-welfare NGOs, the children and grandchildren of first-generation migrants, and academic sociologists. This group, taken together, sees a people who are (by the standards of their rich-world contemporaries) mostly poorer, less educated, in worse health, likelier to be unemployed, and more vulnerable to racism.

Such a characterisation could apply equally to people of Kashmiri descent living in Britain as it would to the Afghan diaspora that has been living in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The first group of experts questions whether it is wise for members of these communities to remain actively connected to politics and development in the countries they left behind. Would it not be better to focus energies on adjusting to new environments, contributing to the countries of settlement, rather than constantly looking back to problems in the homeland which (in any case) people in the diaspora are now too removed from to be able to solve?

The second group is composed mainly of political scientists who study diasporas from the perspective of their countries of origin. They include Ken Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson College, North Carolina, whose specialism is Somalia and the critical role its diaspora plays in the country's politics.

Also in openDemocracy:

Harun Hassan, "'Not housekeepers any more': Somali women of the diaspora
(7 November 2002)

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie, "Migrants and development: a new era"
(8 November 2006)

In observing members of Somali communities abroad, Menkhaus says he sees a confident and empowered community that is eager to participate in politics, development and education in Somalia, and which has the know-how and sophistication to lobby members of parliaments and foreign ministries in Europe and north America. Indeed, with no functioning government for more than a decade, the economy is held together by remittances from Somali communities abroad.

Amid this diversity of voices and opinions, there is something to be said for what Pakistan's Atta-ur-Rahman and other like-minded policymakers in developing countries are trying to achieve by engaging diaspora professionals. They understand that it is unworkable for people who live (or who have put down roots) abroad to burn their boats and return for good. But at the same time they are keen to be able to derive whatever benefit they can from those who are keen to assist. Many of those who are contributing have said that they have always been looking to be guided on how their expertise could best be used. Smart policymakers know where expertise resides and how to tap into it.

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